Lenox — Imagine the least probable romantic couple you can. I doubt you will come up with the pair Simon Stephens created for “Heisenberg,” the touching comedy opening at Shakespeare & Company Saturday, Aug. 11th. As the play begins, Georgie Burns, 42, played by Tamara Hickey has just come up behind Malcolm Ingram’s 75-year-old Alex Priest as he sits on a bench at a London railroad station and kissed him on the neck. They are complete strangers. Among shock, amazement and apologies, the actors and the audience bumble off to the races. Self-contained Alex leaves erratic, reckless Georgie (forever, he thinks) at the end of the scene.
Theater is an old and honorable human invention, collaborative and generous to its core. On a sunny afternoon, as the world worried about the intent and actions of two highly placed, autocratic men meeting on the other side of the world, I sat in a comfortable conference room at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox with actors Ingram and Hickey and director Tina Packer as they began the serious process of bringing Stephens’ play to life.
When I had read the script, I noticed that it never referenced theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg or his uncertainty principle (which posits that you know where something is, but not where it’s going or how fast it’s going to get there), yet its two characters lurch from one idea and one place to another with striking uncertainty. On the face of it, they seem to have little in common. Georgie is an American from New Jersey. Alex is an Irishman who has lived in London since childhood — except for the time when, in despair after the early deaths of his parents following the even earlier death of his only sister, he joined the British army and was sent to serve in the debacle of the invasion of Suez. In fact, Georgie and Alex are laughably unalike (and this makes for many funny moments), but a large component of acting is study. The actors are exploring their characters’ nearly automatic reactions to the damages they’ve sustained in their lives. By Googling Alex, Georgie finds him in his one-man butcher shop at the beginning of the second scene. I asked Packer what she thinks has prompted her to search for him after his first definitive rejection, and she said that it’s the director’s job to “hold the space” for the actors, to help them “get to the heart of things” themselves. She expressed confidence and admiration for these actors, and announced that she opposes any notion of directors coming to projects to impose preconceived ideas.
Hickey admitted to being put off by her character’s devotion to making up stories about herself and her life. She said that, at first, she felt judgmental when Georgie lashed out at Alex, attacking him verbally when he was most vulnerable, but she understands that these habitual behaviors, these manifestations of Georgie’s neuroses, if you will, developed as responses to her belief that everyone she meets will reject her so she might as well give them a reason. Packer, known for exploring the unconscious in projects she works on, nodded agreement.
At that early stage, Ingram seemed to understand that much of his character’s repressed behavior springs from his being dislocated and alone, Irish in England with no family or apparent friends. Alex seems not to have had much formal education and claims never to have traveled, but he makes observations about life that surprise Georgie, who may or may not be a psychologist or a social worker at a school. Georgie believes personality accounts for many things in this world and considers her own personality to be one thing when she is at work and quite another at other times. “I have to reinvent myself to make sure I’m not confusing you with who I am.” Alex counters that: “Personalities don’t exist…. They are just the sum of the individual things that people do. And the path that connects between them. They’re never fixed. They can always change.”
The afternoon waned; the meeting wound down. I was invited to attend the initial reading of the play the next day for the creative team: designers, musicians, costumers, stage managers, language and movement coaches, the many unseen people necessary to make any theatrical project work. The rehearsal room is upstairs in the Tina Packer Playhouse. On that day, there were thundering skies and loud summer rain outside the windows. Packer invited everyone, experienced and inexperienced, to ask questions, and to offer observations and suggestions scene by scene. The actors were still “on book,” occasionally checking their scripts, but they were already using their characters’ accents as they interacted from opposite sides of a big circle of chairs. Ideas flew. Helpful personal experiences and observations were recounted, discussed and made part of the thoughtful mix.
In the script, Alex admits to fearing that he is falling in love with Georgie, but he hasn’t guessed the depth or breadth of her betrayals and no one can guess what he will do when he learns of them. Somehow the differences — and, yes, the gradual revelations of the similarities between Georgie and Alex — help them to form an unlikely bond. They change. He becomes more open, more giving, finally willing to revisit the scene of his last loving meeting with his failed love, Joanne Downey, many years before. Georgie admits to being drawn to Alex’s stillness, his thoughtfulness; she begins to listen instead of filling every silence with the sound of her own voice. She tells him she wants to connect with a son who has abandoned her and gone to New Jersey.
Before the principals broke for dinner and some of the rest of us left, Packer recalled an earlier study of uncertainty in a translation of Buddhist concepts called “neti neti” that she read as a young actress in London. The literal translation is “not this not this,” and it recognizes that, as soon as you observe something, it’s not what it used to be. Now it was my turn to Google: Centuries before there were theoretical physicists, the Buddhists were already teaching that the world always is and always was, and always will be unpredictable.
In our own times, Simon Stephens has made a story of inherent surprise, of love against long odds. As I moved down the stairs toward home, I heard the cast and crew of “Heisenberg” behind me, buzzing about its challenge and discovery. They were choosing work, and hope.
Tickets for Heisenberg are available from the Berkshire Edge calendar or by calling Shakespeare & Company’s box office at (413) 637-3353. The production will run at the Tina Packer Playhouse Saturday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Sept. 2.